Bubble tea’s journey from Taiwan to Atlanta

Bubble tea originated in Taiwan before it exploded in popularity in the United States. Photo by Matt Siciliano-Salazar | The Signal

Taiwanese entrepreneur Tu Tsong-He was $133,000 in debt and reflecting on the loss of his failed hot pot restaurant when he opened the doors to a new tea shop. To save his livelihood, he needed to differentiate his tea shop from others, so he poured tea over large tapioca balls, creating the iconic bubble or “boba” tea.

Or perhaps Lin Hsiu Hui created the drink in 1988 when she poured tapioca balls into her black tea and shared it with coworkers at a meeting. She claims she then began selling the drink at her tea chain, and bubble tea outsold every other beverage on the menu.

Bubble tea’s origin story is murky; multiple people claim they created the drink, but its international popularity is indisputable.

The drink made its way into the United States in the early 1990s when Congress abolished policies disallowing Asians and other ethnic groups’ entry. Young Asian-Americans brought bubble tea with them to the United States, and “boba culture” flourished in Los Angeles before it exploded across the country. Boba was no longer just a drink but an unshakable aspect of Taiwanese culture in America. 

Kung Fu Tea, once a hotspot on campus for Georgia State students looking for boba tea or a quiet place to study, closed late last year. Kung Fu Tea’s website describes the location at 2 Park Place South as “temporarily closed.” 

Still, those looking for their boba fix are in luck. The boba scene in Atlanta is alive and well, and alternatives near campus offer a taste of the beloved drink.

Sweet Hut Bakery & Cafe

Bubble tea owes most of its popularity to its customizability. Soft and chewy tapioca balls offer a unique textural experience, along with add-ins like grass jellies, coffee jellies or popping boba, which are bubbles filled with fruit juice. 

Sweet Hut Bakery & Cafe is the poster child of customizability, offering almost 100 flavors, including avocado, kumquat lemon and white chocolate, and toppings like rainbow jelly, chia seeds and custard pudding. The cafe also offers frappes, slushies and coffees.

While Sweet Hut Bakery & Cafe’s two Atlanta locations are not open for dine-in due to COVID-19, the cafe provides customers a unique alternative. The cafe will deliver gallons of milk tea with free boba directly to customers’ doors.

Honey Bubble

Inside a sleek, modern interior designed and co-owned by Douglas Hines of HGTV, a large blackboard on the wall displays chalk art. Chill lo-fi music plays as tea enthusiasts relax on leather sofas, many of them working on laptops.

Honey Bubble brews its tea hourly and offers baked goods like macarons and Brooklyn egg creams. The tea shop prides itself on visitors’ experience as much as it prides itself on its teas and treats, the latter of which it outsources from local bakeries. 

“From unhealthy ingredients, poor service, high prices and unwelcoming design — the list became what Honey Bubble would do differently,” Mei Hines, Doug’s wife and co-owner of Honey Bubble, said. “Quality is something that can’t be faked.”